Nick Brandt – This Empty World

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Review by Gerhard Clausing •

Callous attitudes toward our natural environment and a non-scientific ignorance regarding current and impending climate calamities are prevalent these days. Economic and population pressures and interests in short-term economic gain also abound. These are recognized as contributing to the demise of humans and other creatures. Encroachment on habitats, competition for land and resources, expansion of “big” business are the major dangers that threaten the survival of many of our fellow creatures that can’t fight back.

These problems especially threaten the survival of the large species of Africa. Nick Brandt is a spokesperson for these animals; not only has he been instrumental in founding the Big Life Foundation that successfully protects 1.6 million acres of habitat in East Africa, but he also presents powerful visual reminders through his photography as an “angry and active” global contributor.

The case Brandt makes is based on the realization that while the population of Africa is exploding (1 billion in 2018; 1.6 billion projected for 2030), Africa’s majestic animals, which are also a major part of the tourism business on that continent, are being pushed aside. Their natural habitats are diminished, poaching abounds, with the horrific effect that the populations of some species, such as lions, elephants, and other magnificent animals, have been reduced by more than half compared to a few decades ago. Brandt writes: “It took billions of years for the earth to become such a wondrously diverse place, but in just a few short years – an infinitesimally microscopic moment in time – it has been annihilated.” In a vigorous competition for resources, the animals are the losers, and he says that “it’s unlikely that any large animal will be able to survive on unprotected land.”

This photobook covers new ground in a number of areas. Large environments were constructed on the territories of the cooperative Maasai to get large species to visit them (it took many months). After the animal images had been taken, elaborate enhancements (gas stations, bridges, buildings, buses, and people) were added to the same huge sets to stage situations of human encroachment on the natural habitats, shooting the corresponding images with the same camera positions. Each of the final images consists of a composition that combines both photographs, thus recreating in impressive visual constructions the process that takes place in reality. Rather than photographing “noble poses,” as he had done previously, Brandt here wanted to show the various species as victims. It was also the first time that Nick Brandt used color and digital equipment, along with large-studio lighting and other equipment on large natural sets. The wide-screen effects achieved through a variety of aspect ratios further add to an effective depiction of the problem.

This photobook is divided into several parts. Brandt’s introductory essay “This Empty World” describes his “outrage overload” and his passion for making a difference. The 70 large plates are magnificently printed and give us a strong sense of the majesty of the animals as well as some of the human pressures. This is where the very large format of this photobook really shines (it would be a notable addition to anyone’s coffee table). The section “Bloodshot Eyeballs (and How They Got That Way)” is a very interesting account, especially for those of us in the visual arts, of the trials and tribulations of the journey of this project – weather, logistics, technical issues, and much more. Brandt’s fascinating notes are enhanced by design diagrams and by documentary photographs created by Andrew Davies and Jamie Hall. A description of the important work of the Big Life Foundation concludes the book.

Douglas Stockdale previously reviewed two other books by Nick Brandt at the PhotoBook JournalOn This Earth and On This Earth, a Shadow Falls.


Photographer:  Nick Brandt (born in London, England; lives in California, USA)

Publisher:  Thames & Hudson, New York, NY; © 2019

Essays:  Nick Brandt

Text:  English

Hardcover, sewn, with illustrated dust jacket; 128 pages, paginated, with 84 color images; 15 ¼ x 13 ¼ inches (39 x 33.5 cm); printed and bound in China by Artron


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© 2019 by Nick Brandt

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